MADINA – “We have nothing to hide in our country, and anyone who has anything to say has only to speak up and we will be all ears.”
Marking the occasion of the royal visit to Madina and on the eve of King Abdullah’s launching of Royal Commission projects in Yanbu worth billions of riyals, the Emir of the Province of Madina, Prince Abdul Aziz Bin Majed, spoke candidly and forthrightly to Okaz newspaper on a wide range of issues of concern for Saudi nationals and foreign residents alike.
King Abdullah’s visit, which comes only a few months after the launching of projects at the Royal Commission in Jubail at a value of SR54 billion, was described by Prince Abdul Aziz as an “opportunity for everyone to ask how far things have progressed.” He spoke frankly on factors holding up aspects of development, as well as the future of tourism in the region, regional investment, the role of Madina’s Chamber of Commerce, plans for schools, improving the infrastructure in rural areas, the role of women and extremism in Madina’s Islamic University.
Of primary concern were the ongoing expansions to the east and west sides of the Prophet’s Mosque in the city, which he said would tackle the roots of issues relating to the central zone and provide green spaces and other areas away from traffic.
“The expansions will be a great step forward in solving the congestion problems centering on the mosque, and the build-up of housing,” the Emir said. “A further future extension will also address the issue of unplanned districts,” he said.
“We are trying to establish certain landmarks and places of interest around the mosque itself and the plans are being studied by the Development Commission of Makkah and Madina.”
The Emir said that these were all part of plans to provide visitors with sites of interest and give them options other than remaining in their hotels and leaving for prayer at the mosque.
“All this will help visitors benefit from the rest of their time, and will all require investment,” he said.
“There are some shopping areas for which there is no need. Visitors require pharmacies and other facilities providing their necessities in the vicinity of the mosque.”
Prince Abdul Aziz said that studies were being conducted and closely monitored by the Minister of Municipal Affairs who is also head of the Makkah Development Commission.
u Haramain Train
Work on the Haramain Train will begin in 2013, with a prior trial period of six months, according to Prince Abdul Aziz. “We have had minor difficulties with the route as it passed through a number of cemeteries, so it has been modified,” he said.
He went on to speak of other projects, some approved and others being worked on to increase the number of hospital beds, improve Prince Mohammed Bin Abdul Aziz Airport, develop the Economic Knowledge City and remove unplanned districts.”
“We will see a real change,” he said, “and no resident of Madina will need to leave the city for medical treatment when these projects are completed.”
The issue of contracted companies failing to carry out projects as initially agreed is under study but, according to Prince Abdul Aziz, the problems involved are not going unrecognized.
“The problem exists everywhere in the Kingdom, and I myself have asked the question,” he said. “Contracts should not be signed with companies who are incapable of carrying them out. The classification system needs to be reevaluated, as contracts are given to companies offering a high standard of work and then subcontracted out to companies of lower standards. Sometimes the company contracted initially will take up only 15 percent of the work and subcontract out the rest. The problems start here, with the passing of contracts from company to company.”
“Regional Emirs have supervisory powers and can intervene in setting priorities and coordinating, but some projects have come to a halt because of other parties. I have at times intervened personally in approved projects and when I find things are not being conducted correctly I discuss it with the relevant ministries, notably the Ministry of Finance.”
u Historical sites
Questions over the fate of historical sites in Madina have led to a variety of concerns, among them that significant locations have been demolished. Prince Abdul Aziz described persons active on the issues as “over-zealous” and cited the example of the Al-Katibiya Mosque which was said to be an important Islamic site but transpired to be merely 150 years old. He also said that while the fate of some buildings could not be determined with certitude, some are believed to have collapsed through age.
“As for mosques from the time of the Prophet’s Companions, they do exist and were renovated during the time of King Fahd and are maintained to this day,” he said.
“The Economic Knowledge City has produced studies and ideas based on the Prophetic Sunna which form a great part of how we deal with these locations and heritage sites,” he continued.
“We are looking at some ideas for recreational and educational locations and they are founded on the basic principles of the Prophetic Sunna from which we will not deviate.”
“Historical sites connected to Islam are important, as the history we teach is connected to these sites and their acquaintance,” he said.
“The issue has been discussed in detail with the President of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities, Prince Sultan Bin Salman, and we decided that some form of study on these sites should be conducted and that guides should take people around the sites and teach them the facts.”
“Some sites will be studied but while differentiating between religious and historical sites.”
Some areas, the Prince added, are under study and others have been put to the Board of Senior Ulema for their views.
u Regional investment
Prince Abdul Aziz went on to address the issue of investment in the region of Madina, and spoke of an “increasing demand” and “reassuring indications”.
“We currently have the Economic Knowledge City launched by the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority and there are tourist projects in the pipeline,” he said.
“Investment in people is at the top of the list of priorities,” the Prince added. “We are currently working to put in place the infrastructure to bring in and train employees to take 20,000 posts.”
u Chamber of Commerce
The Prince was candid in his reservations over the Chamber of Commerce in Madina. “As it stands, the Chamber does not adequately represent Madina or its aspirations,” he said.
“Ideas have been proposed to merge the Madina and Yanbu Chambers because if they continue as they are they will not produce the progress sought in society. But the Chamber is important, and we recall that when the Ministry of Trade and Industry was found lacking the chamber stepped in to compensate.”
The shortage of schools in Madina has been a concern for residents for some time. The Prince admitted the existence of some problems in the provision of land for building new schools and said he had discussed the issue with the Minister of Education. New locations had been found, but often at unreasonable distances, he said.
“Schools don’t exist in some heavily populated areas because some government bodies gave over their land to other departments. When they then required the land for schools they found they had to purchase new land. That’s why the ministry and the regional council bought 45 plots of land for girls’ schools. Other plots are also being purchased.”
u Municipal Councils
“We hope to see the councils play a greater role, and avoid certain negative aspects,” Prince Abdul Aziz said. “We’ve seen in the elections some people moving outside their jurisdiction and into things that have no relation to their work. We want to see them at work and working to fulfill public interests.”
“Women cannot be absent,” the Prince said. “There are competent Saudi women proving their worth in international organizations, in medicine and other areas. Women have the right to be provided with an environment in which they can be creative, effective and productive for themselves, their families and their country. In Madina women have not reached to where we would like them to. In the Chamber of Commerce we need first to put things right and then look towards the participation of women.”
u Islamic University
Responding to criticism from some quarters that the Islamic University in Madina produces extremists, Prince Abdul Aziz said that the university’s curriculum was not in question and that any extremists were individual cases and did not represent the university.
“I can assure that the university’s syllabus is excellent,” the Prince said. “Numerous Indonesian and Malaysian ministers have learnt Arabic there, and the university director, Mohammed Al-Aqalaa, has made great strides in turning the institution into a platform to consecrate correct thought.”
“Prince Naif brought forward numerous scholars who approached sensitive topics openly and unhesitatingly, as we have nothing to hide in our country, and anyone who has anything to say has only to speak up and we will be all ears.” – Okaz/SG